The NFL preseason schedule launches in earnest on Thursday night with six matchups around the league. Here's what we're looking for in each of the games on tap:
It's telling how many NFL insiders believe the Bengals will improve with Hue Jackson calling plays instead of Jay Gruden. The stress is off Andy Dalton's arm and more on "getting our guys in space," the quarterback told NFL Media columnist Michael Silver. With Giovani Bernard promising to take a "few more chances," look to see how Jackson mixes and matches his second-year back with rookie hammer Jeremy Hill in a backfield primed to thunder-and-lightning its way through the AFC North.
We won't see Redskins deep threat DeSean Jackson, but we will get our first look at Robert Griffin III inside Gruden's new offense. Fellow Around The League scribe Chris Wesseling has touted RGIII as a potential Comeback Player of the Year candidate, but the third-year passer must improve his pocket presence to pull that off. We won't see Griffin for more than a series or two, but pitting him against New England's Darrelle Revis serves as a meaty first test for Washington's weapon-heavy attack.
Rip the training wheels off Carlos Hyde. San Francisco's rookie back is on tap for plenty of action with Kendall Hunter stashed away on injured reserve and LaMichael James on the shelf with a dislocated elbow. Hyde has drawn favorable comparisons from coaches to Frank Gore, while general manager Trent Baalke called him a "235-pound back that has small-man movements." With coordinator Greg Roman unsure if Gore will suit up against the Ravens, prepare for a big dose of Hyde against precocious rookie C.J. Mosley and a Baltimore defense that's already calling itself a top-five unit.
Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick vs. Indy's less-than-stellar secondary. Gang Green is devoted to its second-year passer, but Pro Football Focus notes that Smith produced an ugly 1:7 touchdown-to-pick ratio under pressure last season. Geno isn't afraid to wing the ball downfield, though, which suits newcomer Eric Decker: the former Bronco led all NFL wideouts with a 60 percent catch rate on targets of 20 yards or more in 2013. Smith is under pressure to display chemistry with Decker and prove that last year's whopping 25 turnovers are a thing of the past.
We tabbed this tilt as must-see TV back in May, but don't expect more than a series or two of Peyton Manning vs. Richard Sherman. I look forward to seeing Ronnie Hillman step in for the shelvedMontee Ball. Coming off an "unbelievable" offseason, Hillman can wipe away the memory of two disappointing campaigns, but we've heard the hype before. C.J. Anderson -- more of an inside runner -- is clearly seen as the No. 3, but that's what the games are for.
Tony Romo will don street clothes, but keep an eye on Philip Rivers. The Chargers passer is set to operate one of the NFL's fastest attacks under new coordinator Frank Reich. The play-calling K-Gun disciple wants to challenge opponents with pace after San Diego ran last year's second-slowest offense, per Pro Football Outsiders. After Rivers threw an NFL-low 2 percent of his passes beyond 30 yards, we also expect the Bolts to employ more vertical routes with a faster Keenan Allen in the mix.